A couple of things jump out from Thomas Frank’s Baffler essay on Martha’s Vineyard and the plutocrats who waste their looted fortunes there. One is that the island’s BoBos sound unconscionably sanctimonious about their own superior virtue. They seem to earnestly believe that they earned their Vineyard estates by staying in school, doing their homework, matriculating at Yale on their sheer scholastic merits, and busting ass at whatever racket they managed to run on some captive market or vulnerable victim pool. It’s beyond absurd to hear Frank’s account of these cutthroat masters of the universe wringing their hands about income inequality in one breath and blaming the poor for not obtaining enough formal education in the next. As far as I can tell, these sheltered, half-assedly introspective twits sincerely believe that MOAR EJUKASHUN is the answer, as opposed to cutting out all the managerial-class scams, hustles, extortion rackets, and robberies by contract that they use to beggar the working class. This is ever so much more insidious than the old Roosevelt and Kennedy traditions of basically admitting that, yeah, we gots da mad family bling, dawg, we gots hella cash since 4eva. It can be a game-changer for scions of wealth to admit that they didn’t earn it and that it may not have been honestly earned in the first place. That honesty opens the door to reform on behalf of the less fortunate, e.g., to bringing the Pinkertons to heel, starting the WPA, etc. What Frank describes are extremely privileged people who insist that they earned it all and can’t imagine that they’re possibly part of the problem. Hillary much? Yes, these people are overwhelmingly Democrats who conceive of themselves as being towards the left. If you were wondering why we can’t have nice things, like a functional labor left wing, there you have it.
Another thing that jumps out of Frank’s piece, although this may require a bit of historical context to appreciate, is that the Vineyard crowd has a strong, if mainly residual, sense of tact about the luxury of its lifestyle. They summer (yes, Parker, that’s an excellent verb) on an economically hypersegregated island buffered by private beaches. They maintain hedgerows around their estates and hide their mansions beyond long, heavily landscaped driveways. They cultivate a somewhat subdued aesthetic in clothing and transportation for people of their status: coaster bikes instead of Escalade stretched limousines, souvenir T-shirts designed to signal to those in the know that they frequent all the chic island joints instead of bling piles atop zoot suits. It’s a stance diametrically opposed to Donald Trump’s longstanding tradition of peacocking in business suits, doing televised C-suite cosplay at a dark wooden conference table, and running bespoke monogrammed 757 game on his people. Trump is a heavily indebted hustler who wants everyone to think that he’s fabulously wealthy. The standard on Martha’s Vineyard is for wealthy and powerful people, most of them probably more solvent than Trump, to downplay their wealth.
The historical context that helps explain this discreet aesthetic is the Great Depression. That’s when wealthy Americans started in earnest to hide their mansions behind wide forest or landscaping screens on out-of-the-way rural estates. They did this because they didn’t want the poors to get resentful, then angry, then violent. The specter of 1789 was on their minds. They valued their own necks. They very much did not want to come across as latter-day Marie Antoinettes in a country that had just been financially ruined. Hence the tact.
The fin-de-siècle robber barons preceding them had acted nothing like that. They had flaunted their wealth all over Manhattan and Saratoga Springs. A number of them had been ostentatious public assholes about it. Jay Gould had boasted that he could hire one half of the working class to kill the other half, and time and again the robber barons tried to do exactly that, using the Pinktertons, in-house informants, homicidal company militias, the police, and the National Guard. When the Depression hit, fewer of these private tyrants thought it wise to try to take on both the working class and a recently dispossessed middle class in a time of widespread hostility to elites who were blamed for rigging the markets and letting everyone else eat the losses. Quietly retreating from public view was one of the simplest things the elites could do to limit popular anger.
No matter how calculating and self-serving this was, there was a certain functional respect to not flaunting one’s wealth before people who can’t make rent or afford new shoes for their children. This discretion ethic set a very healthy example for the next two or three generations of American elites. For forty and in some places sixty years after Black Tuesday, there was a prevailing sense that being an asshole about one’s privilege and wealth was not the done thing. There was a consensus that discretion and tact were virtues worth cultivating. Maybe other people who can’t afford to vacation in Europe don’t want to listen to you brag about your recent European vacation, that kind of thing. There was a general feeling among the successful that they would have to interact with the relatively unsuccessful as their equals, so they ought to try not to make asses of themselves in the process.
Palo Alto in 1990 versus Palo Alto today is a useful case study. It was an affluent and sometimes embarrassingly sheltered community back then, but its wealthy then were extremely modest compared to its wealthy today. It didn’t have raging assholes and creeps setting the tone for everyone else. It would have been unthinkable for someone like Mark Zuckerberg or Peter Thiel to be regarded as a legitimate leader of anything. The sense of the meeting would have been, Jesus Christ, who the fuck does that shithead think he is, carrying on like that? Nobody could have imagined something like Uber being a necessity. Palo Altans figured that if they needed a ride, they could call a taxi, a friend, a relative, an airport shuttle service. No, this was not just because the necessary technology did not exist. There would have been no technological or logistical obstacle in such an urbanized area to having receptionists page, phone, or fax on-call jitney cabbies to fulfill ride requests. It was really that the idea of needing to keep the reserve pool of the working class on call to operate unlicensed cabs would have been completely alien to a population with generally middle-class values, and it would have seemed unscrupulous to more than a few of them.
The punchable thing that happened on the way to the Coliseum, of course, was the yuppie project. A cohort of overeducated, arrogant, aggressive fuck-y’alls sensed a quorum of their own kind and coalesced into a scum upon the pond of American civics. By associating increasingly with one another instead of with the more diverse crowd whose company they would have kept a decade or two earlier, they were able to convince themselves that they were the mainstream and everyone beneath them was a loser who hadn’t gotten with the program. They wouldn’t have been able to normalize their own pathology if they had remained exposed to backtalk from their inferiors, so they started segregating themselves. The trends since 1975 or so have been towards more economic stratification in housing and schools, more gated communities, more conspicuous consumption by those who can afford it (cash or credit; it’s all good), more outrageous public behavior by celebrities, more public corruption, and less accountability for elected officials. One of the bizarre things about Donald Trump that has gotten quite little press attention during his current presidential campaign is that, before he ran as a populist upstart promising to restore an industrial policy benefiting the working class, he very prominently pushed the boundaries of public taste befitting a corporate executive starting in the 1980’s. The guy named a fucking airline after himself. He put his name in million-point type over the skyline of Atlantic City, then achieved the first major casino bankruptcy in what was at the time the only legal gambling district for hundreds of miles. Of course he had Michael Jackson headline the inauguration of the Trump Casino; he would. A transsexual and transracial headcase with a private amusement park and a pedophilia problem pairs all too nicely with a loudmouthed narcissist who puts his surname in fool’s-gold all-caps on every bit of property he can mortgage.
What’s appalling here isn’t that the wealthy and the affluent have extra creature comforts; that was true throughout the Great Compression. The appalling things, rather, are that the successful are gaining obscene levels of privilege and luxury while the unsuccessful have trouble keeping themselves off the streets, and that almost none of today’s winners personally feel or have anyone around them reminding them that they ought to be a bit circumspect because there are poors within earshot who do not want to hear about that shit. No, I do not want yuppies bragging about their Mercedes and Audis* when I’m not sure that I can afford body repairs to my own car that don’t involve duct tape; thanks for not asking. (*Note: High-end Audis; old, beaten-up, low-end Audis like the one my Aspie uncle has driven for years, with random undercoats showing through and replacement panels of the wrong colors, are the bomb in an I-can’t-believe-that-exists way. East Palo Alto represent!) Yes, your #yachtlife hashtag is problematic. Do I have to fucking spell this out? Do you really think the lower classes trying to navigate a ruined low-end economy during a Fourth Turning secular depression want to hear about how you’re spending your weekend on a fucking yacht? You for real, cracka?
Nah, unfortunately, I can answer this. The Insurance Schmuck is for real here, although the statistics he believes are anything but real. For someone with a BA in economics and an MBA, he’s pig-ignorant about the economy. Then again, that’s kind of the point of these degrees. They’re designed to produce competent managerial-class pillagers, not educated people with a broad understanding of how economies work. Anyone who understands business and economics as something other than who can steal the most surplus wealth from which productive enterprises would agree that I contribute more to the economy in a day (or, really, an hour) of farm work than any salesman does in a career of pitching life insurance annuities. That I’m unpaid or poorly paid for most of my work and the Insurance Schmuck is very well paid for his is a separate matter. Thoughtful people who plug into something other than the yuppie gaslighting matrix understand this. Actually unplugging is–what can I say? –Wow Many redpill Very confuse. This is why the rest of us owe it to ourselves and to our societies to maintain some bearings in the real, tangible world, as opposed to the simulacrum that the small-f fascists and their yuppies use to gaslight us all for their own financial benefit. Allowing yuppies and their shithead leaders like Hillary Clinton to keep tone-policing us absolutely is not the solution.
Incidentally, this #yachtlife obnoxiousness is not really a function of social media allowing dipshits to commit Rich Kids of Instagram microaggressions without thinking them through first. There’s a running moral panic about kids these days blurting out the first thing on their minds on Facebook and sending each other naughty pictures that will land them on the sex offender registries for child pornography and so forth, but it’s bogus as all hell. What I’ve actually noticed on Facebook is not impulsive people outdoing their own foolishness so much as social climbers very calculatingly censoring and stage-managing themselves. It’s pretty clear that they’re worried about what some nosy, totalitarian asshole will think if they dare express an independent thought or document an independent decision. I have people in my Facebook feeds who effectively use their personal profiles as professional marketing and self-branding platforms. A few of them are quite pathetic about it. I’ve rarely encountered anyone publishing anything on social media that was not intended for roughly the audience that was allowed to see it. I also know from experience or credible hearsay that many of my Facebook contacts make the same sorts of comments face-to-face or over computer messaging services that they make in their general-audience Facebook posts. It’s nothing more than the mouth, or in this case the hands, confessing the feelings of the heart.
Facebook et al. are not some new frontier allowing the general population to express unprecedented thoughts. The Insurance Schmuck brags about high-end vacations on Facebook because he considers it appropriate to brag tactlessly in pretty much any social setting. He considers it appropriate, or maybe just momentarily expedient, to DHV himself with this shit and give absolutely no thought to how those of more modest means will feel. He doesn’t need social media to accomplish this; he’s expert at finding opportunities to annoy others with outbursts of crassness in real life. None of the obnoxious shit on Facebook isn’t anything that some belligerent asshole wouldn’t blurt out in a bar. Those who consider it reasonable to rub others’ faces in their own ownership of fine-ass automobiles or pleasure boats will avail themselves of opportunities to be assholes about their Veblen goods. No, this failure of social grace didn’t come about because we stopped writing one another longhand letters. Do you seriously want to argue that no one ever poured out a bunch of paranoid, hostile nonsense or fart-sniffing about the superiority of his own elegant lifestyle in a letter? If you enjoy reputable newspapers, do you really want to praise William Randolph Hearst for publishing in the same medium? When Facebook serves as a BoBo echo chamber, it’s because the BoBos using it love them an echo chamber (notwithstanding whatever newsfeed gaslighting Facebook and/or the DoD are doing at the moment).
This is why I try to use my own social media presence to model broad middle-class values, like not being a gobshite about la dolce vita and recognizing that the lower orders deserve some dignity and respect, too. At the same time, I can’t object too strongly to openly dissipated upper-class values, like Thomas Frank’s archetype of “a gilded young layabout who’s washed out of some Ivy League school and now spends his days drinking beer on his dad’s yacht.” That’s a dipshit right there, but it’s a dipshit who mostly doesn’t get in the way. He’s probably too sauced and lazy to concern-troll public policy to his own socioeconomic advantage. Frank described this loser as the “beau ideal” of Vineyard Vines. That’s a lot like “agricultural farming.” Oddly for a viticultural enterprise, Vineyard Vines features a picture of a whale that looks like it was drawn by a five-year-old. There must be some Moby Dickheads over there. Or maybe the whales are just scenery.
Say, though, isn’t that a kind of seafood? Rundel, get your ass out on that boat, and have Millington bring the harpoon.